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American Conspiracy Theories [Print Replica] [Kindle Edition]

Joseph E. Uscinski , Joseph M. Parent
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)

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Book Description

We are living in an age of conspiracy theories, whether it's enduring, widely held beliefs such as government involvement in the Kennedy assassination or alien activity at Roswell, fears of a powerful infiltrating group such as the Illuminati, Jews, Catholics, or communists, or modern fringe movements of varying popularity such as birtherism and trutherism. What is it in American culture that makes conspiracy theories proliferate? Who is targeted, and why? Are we in the heyday of the conspiracy theory, or is it in decline?
Though there is significant scholarly literature on the topic in psychology, sociology, philosophy, and more, American Conspiracy Theories is the first to use broad, long-term empirical data to analyze this popular American tendency. Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent draw on three sources of original data: 120,000 letters to the editor of the New York Times and Chicago Tribune from between 1890 and 2010; a two-wave survey from before and after the 2012 presidential election; and discussions of conspiracy theories culled from online news sources, blogs, and other Web sites, also from before and after the election. Through these sources, they are able to address crucial questions, such as similarities and differences in the nature of conspiracy theories over time, the role of the Internet and communications technologies in spreading modern conspiracy theories, and whether politics, economics, media, war, or other factors are most important in popularizing conspiratorial beliefs. Ultimately, they conclude that power asymmetries, both foreign and domestic, are the main drivers behind conspiracy theories, and that those at the bottom of power hierarchies have a strategic interest in blaming those at the top-in other words, "conspiracy theories are for losers." But these "losers" can end up having tremendous influence on the course of history, and American Conspiracy Theories is an unprecedented examination of one of the defining features of American political life.

Editorial Reviews


"There are plenty of myths and misapprehensions about conspiracy theories and the damage they do. In this path-breaking book, Parent and Uscinski sift fact from fiction to set the record straight about who believes in conspiracy theories, when, why, and with what political consequences. Their answers will surprise you." --David Runciman, University of Cambridge

"This fascinating book tackles some of the thorniest questions about conspiracy theories: who believes them, why do they believe them, and how have these beliefs changed over time? The authors' extensive research shows that Americans are actually less prone to conspiratorial thinking than they were just a few decades ago. Their findings are surprising and sure to provoke debate on this timely and important topic." --Kathy Olmsted, University of California, Davis

"Uscinski and Parent provide the most comprehensive social scientific explanation to date for why conspiratorial beliefs are so prevalent in the United States. Drawing on an eclectic array of original data sources, which remarkably include more than 100,000 letters to the editors of two major newspapers from 1890 to 2010, the authors convincingly identify the features uniting over a century of conspiratorial beliefs. This books is therefore a must read for anyone interested in political misinformation in general, and American conspiracy theories in particular." --Michael Tesler, University of California, Irvine

About the Author

Joseph E. Uscinski is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.

Joseph M. Parent is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami.

Product Details

  • File Size: 11285 KB
  • Print Length: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (August 5, 2014)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00MN95OXY
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Lending: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #167,569 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
In case the reader didn't notice the description, it's worth noting up front that Parent and Uscinski are both professors of political science at the University of Miami--the former an international relations specialist, the latter an Americanist with a particular focus on media and public opinion--so this is a social scientific study of conspiracy theories, not just a compendium of conspiracy-related anecdotes.
The research question basically asks why people in the US believe conspiracy theories, with the key term defined as "an explanation of historical, ongoing, or future events that cites as a main causal factor a small group of powerful persons, the conspirators, acting in secret for their own benefit against the common good". Importantly, that does not label conspiracy theories as true or false--they can be either one. Some laborious data collection and analysis allows them to rule out a number of oft-cited factors as influencing the overall prevalence of conspiracy theories, including economic performance, the size of the government, social change, technological advancement, and political polarization (these all sound rather nebulous but are defined more precisely in the book and evaluated with specific measures typical to the research on those topics).

In addition to their arguments against conventional wisdom, they have a few key findings of their own. The big one is that the data suggest that political ideology and partisanship are not good predictors of whether people will hold and express belief in conspiracy theories. As they put it in a recent post for The Monkey Cage, a blog at the Washington Post, "Conspiracy theories aren’t just for conservatives." They tie this to a broader argument about power distributions.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format:Kindle Edition
Uscinski and Parent attempt to provide a framework for understanding conspiracy theories: why they are so persistent, particularly in American culture, why are some more popular than others, and the characteristics of people who are prone to believe in conspiracy theories. If you are looking for a book that catalogs every crackpot conspiracy theory out there, this isn’t the book for you, but prominent and less popular conspiracy theories are often highlighted as examples to prove their points, so you will read some pretty wild stories. If at any point you find yourself thinking, “that’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s verifiable fact!” then you probably fall somewhere on the conspiratorial thinking spectrum and ultimately prove them right (e.g. refer to the first reviewer).

The subject is interesting and the authors examine it thoughtfully. Moreover, despite the academic nature of their analysis (it sometimes reads as though they hit the thesaurus function too often), the authors have lots of fun with the subject, so you will laugh often while reading. Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book to read.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars From a hardline skeptic December 16, 2014
This is the best book I've come across explaining why people believe conspiracies. It doesn't take sides regarding the veracity of any particular theories, and manages to be basically neutral. It looks like the negative reviews are from conspiracy theorists who don't like the idea of being studied.
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7 of 13 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a very useful exploration of this subject October 17, 2014
Format:Kindle Edition
This book attempts to provide a scholarly social psychology and sociology based analysis of why people (Americans in particular) believe in various popular conspiracy theories. While looking at the research on that subject is fairly interesting and does provide input on the topic from a particular angle, the book fails to address some other fundamental questions about the definition and nature of conspiracy theories.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that when people are prospering and benefiting from the status quo and the existing power structure they are less likely to question that power structure and the narrative of history and current events presented by that current establishment. However, we also need to ask what defines a conspiracy theory? Colonial men assembling to plot their revolt against British rule is a conspiracy, as is numerous people working on a secret atom bomb project, or a group of political party leaders gathering to plot their strategy to win an election. Human society requires conspiracies to function and get things accomplished. Some are open conspiracies and others are hidden due usually to those engaged in it knowing that the general populace would not approve of the scheme and the scheme would be thwarted if revealed. Essentially everyone believes in conspiracy theories - it's just that some are more inclined to believe the ones that contradict the "official" or establishment narrative about reality.

When looking for reasons people lean toward those anti-establishment oriented conspiracies we also could consider how seemingly dubious and incongruent with facts and evidence the dominant or official story is.
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